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2013 Grateful 43

‘When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.’
Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey

The very nature of how I’ve chosen to live my life means that I regularly meet new people. I touched on this briefly last week with my reference to reason/season/lifetime. Many people might find it hard to believe that I’m an introvert. Yes, I do the stage thing. Yes, I can party with the best. Yes, I can engage, entertain, and perform. And enjoy it, at the time. But being around people constantly takes its toll. Human interaction drains me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. So many people simply don’t know how to sit comfortably in silence. I’ve gotten better at keeping my distance, at not immersing myself in the lives of others. I’ve gotten better at protecting my soul from those who want from me all that I can give… and more besides. I’m much more discriminating about with whom I choose to spend my time and what I say ‘yes’ to.

There was a stage when I resented the fact that I did so much for others and got so very little in return. And then I realised that the fault lay, not with others, but with me. My motivation was wrong. My compulsion to help was skewed towards some weird form of self-validation. You ask. I help. And in doing so, my life is somewhat justified. I felt that I had to ‘do’ to be appreciated, that I had to give, to be accepted, that I had to play to the gallery to earn my place. And I was wrong.

I learned my lesson many years ago, in Valdez, Alaska, when I broke my back in a snow machine accident. The town of 4000+ people rallied round and people I’d never met before showed up at my door with casseroles and cups of coffee. Some are still good friends today. They came to my bedside with grandchildren and conversation. They came to do my nails, to read to me, to keep me from thinking the worst of what might be. It was a truly humbling experience.

I came across the Nouwen quotation recently, not long after a conversation with a yet another new entrant to my world, one who is teaching me a lot about myself and what I want from life. A friend of theirs is ill. Very ill. I find myself regularly asking for updates, genuinely interested in their progress. My friend Lori’s anniversary is just around the corner and perhaps that has something to do with it. I feel their pain and I know that what’s ahead won’t be easy. So it is natural for me to ask and to be concerned, not least because what concerns my friend, what upsets them, what distracts them, also has an effect on me.

So, when, after one solicited update, they thanked me for my interest, I was a little taken aback. I must have looked a little surprised because they went on to explain that this wasn’t something they came across regularly. Yes, a casual ask about the health of a loved one, that was to be expected. But a genuine interest? A willingness to listen? That, albeit much appreciated, was unusual in their world.

Curious, now, about the power of empathy, I did a little more reading and found the answer to my surprise, and to theirs.

‘Our bodies have five senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing. But not to be overlooked are the senses of our souls: intuition, peace, foresight, trust, empathy. The differences between people lie in their use of these senses; most people don’t know anything about the inner senses while a few people rely on them just as they rely on their physical senses, and in fact probably even more.’
C. JoyBell C.

LituaniaI rely heavily on these inner senses. They are very much part of who I am. I am the product of a happy childhood, supportive parents, understanding friends, and a calm and sure certainty that what will be will be. I trust in my God implicitly and from that comes a security that allows me to indulge these senses, no matter what the advice the world might give to the contrary.

This week, as I wait patiently to have my stitches removed and somewhat impatiently for the GOTG final on Thursday, I am truly grateful for the God-sent, those who cross my path to remind me of how truly blessed I am.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

The best of two seasons

If you’ve ever driven the Richardson Highway between Valdez and Anchorage, Alaska during the couple of weeks when the leaves turn, you will know what I mean when I say that the scenery is like a painter’s palette. I’ve heard of people going to New England for the Fall to see nature’s mesmerizing display and since Alaska, while I’ve seen nice autumns, I’ve not experienced anything quite like the drive through the forests of Tranyslvania.

For a thousand years, up until WWI, Transylvania was associated with Hungary. Back in the 10th century, the Hungarian Székely settled in what is still called Erdély (‘beyond the forest’ – the literal meaning of Transylvania). With two-lane roads wending their way through the mountains, the colours were breathtaking. Passing few cars and seeing no-one but a series of lone, chain-saw wielding men, it was as if we had the place to ourselves. The higher we went, the colder it got and then we crossed over – from autumn to winter – that wonderful moment when it is neither one nor the other but a bit of both.

Given the choice between hot and cold, I’d go for cold any day. There’s a limit to the amount of clothes you can take off and if you’re not near the sea or a substantial body of water, heat is miserable. But cold – especially contintental cold  – that’s more than doable.

We were trying to get to Saint Anna lake but as we dodged fallen, snow-laden branches, pragmatism won out. The lake will have to wait for another day but the legend, and its swans, reminded me of the Children of Lir.

Way back when, even before the 13th century, two brothers lived in the area. One day, a stranger, driving a beautiful chariot with six horses, called to one of the brother’s castles. They had a party and in a gambling game of some sort (probably dice), one of the brothers won the stranger’s chariot and horses. The other brother, not to be outdone, found a better chariot and went to the village to find the 12 most beautiful women, to pull it. [I wonder if this might be the source of that Irish saying – she’s a horse of a woman?] But the chariot was too heavy for them. They couldn’t move it. The brother became angry and started beating them to death. Before she died, the most beautiful of them all, Anna, cursed the castle. A terrible stormed brewed and the castle sank into the earth. A lake appeared in the crater and on it swam 12 swans. When the birds touched land, they changed back into girls and all but one went back to their village. Anna stayed and built a small chapel and stayed there til she died.

Pilgrims still come in their droves and many young people come in the hope of finding a partner. Again, I’m reminded of Ireland and that childhood prayer: Holy St Ann, holy St Ann, send me a man as fast as you can. Definitely worth a trip back in the spring.

 

Bed and breakfast and bucket lists

I have a bucket list. And given that I’m going to live until I’m 87, it’s quite an extensive one. It includes everything from walking the Ho Chi Minh trail to taking the 17-hour train journey from Baku to Tbilisi to having a long drink with Sam Waterston. Somewhere, buried amidst these dreams is to run my own, exclusive, B&B, where people would come to get away from it all – to go dark. No phones, no Internet, no iPads, no connection with the real world. An escape furnished with old-fashioned, paper bound books, music, and plenty of nooks and crannies to sit and do nothing. The ability to do nothing is in danger of dying out – we need to save it. But that’s another post. Right now, I’m trying a Jekyll and Hyde character on for size: a cantankerous curmudgeon, sometimes hard to keep quiet while other times you’d have more luck getting blood from a particularly insipid turnip than getting two consecutive sentences from me. I’ve not quite figured it out fully, but there have been days recently when that character is becoming slightly more real. In the meantime, I’ve been keeping my eye out for suitable properties and came across this one last weekend.

This house is for sale. And it’s gorgeous. It extends right out the back and would make a perfect guesthouse. Were I really serious about my bucket list, and had the wherewithal to make it into a reality, I’d consider buying it and ticking off ‘creating the ultimate getaway’ before I get too old to be bending over to take that homemade bread out of the oven. But while I am serious about my bucket list, it needs to be revised as I’m not all that serious about having strangers in my house. At least not in my current peopled outedness.

This is an idyllic piece of property though – it’s in quite good nick, has a great view, and is within spitting distance of its very own castle. What more could I want? It’s about a two-hour bus ride north of Budapest in the heart of the country with lots of great walking trails around it. Pop over to the next village, Kozárd, and you’re in Apple Valley.  But this house is in the village of Hollókő (raven on a stone) in the middle of a 141-ha nature reserve and is the only village in Hungary which is registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. For the last 25 years or so, its residents have, in effect, been living in a museum. So, were I to live here, I’d be part of this museum and have people peering over my fence every waking minute of the day. I am laughing to myself and thinking: were I in Valdez, I’d just load the house on a trailer and take it out of town! But I’m not. And it’s not. I won’t take it off my bucket list just yet – but I will demote it a few places. At least until I get over my people thing.

And, an aside: My man Sam is being honoured with a lifetime achievement award from Old Sturbridge Village (another living history museum – but not a real-life one, like Hollókő). Is that merely a coincidence or is the universe busy playing around with serendipity?

Diplomatic persons

The flight from the Ukraine to Azerbaijan was about half full. The first transit bus had disgorged its passengers and we had taken seat, expecting the doors to close at any minute. The overhead compartments were full, not of suitcases and bags, but of heavy winter coats and big fur hats. It was -12°Cin Kiev that afternoon.

I had one of the back rows all to myself and had my laptop out ready to boot up. Flights are no longer an opportunity to catch up on some much-needed sleep. Until I learn how to say ‘no’ and mean it, I will be forever looking for a few extra hours in a day.  The flight to Baku was earmarked to copy-edit a couple of a chapters from a book written by a gal from Belarus… a favour.

One more bus pulled up outside and about a dozen men in greatcoats and hats came aboard. I immediately pegged them as oil workers. It may well have been that flying into Kiev that morning from Budapest, I had been forcibly reminded of Alaska – of Valdez – and the oil industry and its accompaniments were on my mind. The white expanse of snow punctuated by wooden houses and bright flashes of colour as pick-ups navigated the icy roads. It was very similar to Valdez – without the water and the mountains and the trailer parks…

I had no doubt in my mind. The men were big and burly and dressed and pressed in street clothes that looked as if they’d been carefully closeted until now. Huge hands, broad shoulders, and loud voices – the sum of the parts was greater than the sum of the whole. They were oil workers and they looked as if they were heading home on leave. As they tried to fit their bags and coats into the already crammed overhead compartments, it became clear that they operated as a unit. One elderly, rather distinguished man, pointed to various compartments with a beautifully carved walking stick, instructing two of the men as to what could go where. Another was sent off to check with the cabin steward if they could use the empty back rows for their bags. A fourth was set to work repacking coats already stored.

They were carrying huge boxes that looked as if they contained 5-litre bottles of some unpronounceable liquor. So, maybe they were going on rather than coming off.  Yes, it made more sense that they were going back to work. The Azeri economy runs on oil and they were heading towards Baku. Happy that I’d figured it all out, I went to work.

We had no sooner taken off than most of the empty back rows had been claimed. The shortest of these giants stretched out and promptly fell asleep. Loud snores, grunts, and heavy breathing melded into one and took on an almost orchestral note that blended nicely with my percussionist keyboard tapping.

Later, as I entered the immigration all at Baku, I saw three signs: Foreign Passports, Azerbaijan citizens, Diplomatic Persons. I took my place at the back of a long, slow-moving queue, wishing, not for the first time, that I had a diplomatic passport. Then, as if from nowhere, my boys appeared en masse, and stood in the Diplomatic Persons line. I did a double take. Yes, all 12 of them, including la director with his wonderfully carved stick. Diplomats? Surely not! No way.  As a host of illusions shattered noiselessly around me, I wondered… mmmm, one doesn’t have to be a diplomatic person to be a diplomat!